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Larry W. Isaac

Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Sociology & Political Economy Professor of American Studies

Past President, Southern Sociological Society (2007-2008)
Past Editor, American Sociological Review (2010-2015)
Past Department Chair (2015-2021)

How do relatively powerless people sometimes come together to act collectively for purposes of ostensibly changing the world?

In recent years, my research has focused primarily on dimensions of the U.S. labor and civil rights movements.  Questions associated with three research currents have occupied most of my attention—movement diffusion, movements and cultural genres, and modes of opposition to the labor movement. I have examined how movements move, both within a single movement as well as between movements in the context of the southern civil rights movement, explaining how nonviolent praxis moved from India to Nashville by way of dialogical cultural diffusion. This is also a central theme in a book project on the same topic. In a multi-movement field, I have also examined the diffusion impact of one movement on another addressing how aspects of the civil rights movement spread into the labor movement to enhance labor militancy in the postwar decades.

A second question of key interest is how various cultural genres have been shaped, used by, and ultimately influenced the development of social movements. Specifically, I have demonstrated how the rise of the national labor movement in the Gilded Age in conjunction with adoption of realist aesthetic in literature led to the emergence of a new literary genre, the labor problem novel. In a micro-focused textual analysis, I have also shown how writers during the late 19th century used the labor problem story as a new contentious forum to battle over differing constructions of the labor problem. A third research current investigates forms of opposition to the labor movement and their impact. I have examined various modes of opposition, including symbolic opposition through different mass-mediated venues, formation of private capitalist militias, and mortal bloodshed during labor strikes. Currently, I am engaged in the study of how mass-mediated ideology may have worked through different cultural venues to shape labor’s shop-floor struggle for collective self-determination.